Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Adventure of the Week: Mission Asteroid (1981)

Sierra On-Line's Hi-Res Adventure #0: Mission Asteroid was published after #1: Mystery House, and #2, The Wizard and the Princess, but as it was intended as an easier game aimed at younger players, Sierra retro-assigned it to number zero.  It benefits from the improved graphics engine introduced with adventure #2, allowing color fills as well as vectors, allowing for much more colorful graphics than Sierra's pioneering first effort.  Mission Asteroid was released on the Apple II, Commodore 64, and Atari 400/800 computers but apparently retired from Sierra's active catalog lineup fairly early.  It's difficult to find accurate credits for this one; programming is credited to Chris Iden by some sources, and it seems stylistically different from Roberta Williams' games, but it was included in Sierra's 1997 Roberta Williams Anthology, so she must have had a hand in its creation as she did in most of Sierra's early adventure products.

We'll be playing the Apple II edition here.  The only version I was able to track down is a pirated copy -- another reminder that, for better or worse, today's online archives benefit from rampant software theft via BBS bulletin boards back in the day.  This one is particularly egregious, as the pirates' hacked-in title screen removes any reference to On-Line Systems and the game's actual authorship: 

As always, I suggest that interested gamers tackle Mission Asteroid before proceeding here; it's fairly brief and most of the puzzles are so straightforward they scarcely count as such, though efficient execution is a must.  This one requires a separate save disk, but provides 15 save slots, and it's important to use this feature as timing is of the essence and there are many ways to slip up.  It's too bad the game doesn't recognize multiple disk drives, though, as accidentally saving to the original game disk is not prevented, and doing so corrupts the data, rendering the game unplayable!  It took me a number of tries to get everything right, and you can learn about my travails if you're willing to suffer the...



The player begins standing in front of a nondescript building, with a "BEEP, BEEP, BEEP!" noise coming from somewhere.  We have a watch in inventory, which closer examination establishes as a BEEPER WATCH with a switch on it and the time 12:05.  Five minutes pass for each move we make, so it appears we will have to deal with some time pressure; we are apparently one of the slowest human beings on earth, taking a solid five minutes to open a door, ten minutes if we plan to walk through it afterwards.

As in the opening of Mystery House, we can't GO BUILDING or navigate by compass direction, but have to OPEN DOOR and GO DOOR to enter.  The Apple ][ graphics do the poor secretary no favors, saddling her with two phones of different sizes and serious hat hair:

We can TALK SECRETARY, but all she says is "HELLO" until we try to go north, prompting her to be slightly more verbal with"PASSWORD, PLEASE."  Going east puts us back outside; if we PUSH SWITCH on the watch, we are told that we need to REPORT TO THE BRIEFING ROOM AT ONCE. THE PASSWORD IS STARSTRUCK.  This is a handy reminder, as our character is (as usual in adventure games) a complete amnesiac about his or her own history and circumstances, and as an added bonus the incessant beeping now stops.  SAY STARSTRUCK and the secretary says, "YOU MAY NOW PASS."  The parser expects 8 characters, so we can't SAY STARBUCKS, or SAY STARSKY AND HUTCH, or suggest we will do ANYTHING to meet Mick Jagger to fake our way past the front desk.

The map has consistent geography for the most part, befitting the game's introductory nature.  The COMPUTER ROOM contains an APPLE ][ computer and a diskette, making for a bit of a meta moment.  The diskette is unlabeled and the computer reveals nothing special, but if we INSERT DISKETTE -- PUT DISKETTE INTO WHAT? (ANSWER QUESTION) -- COMPUTER, then... I DON'T KNOW HOW TO COMPUTER SOMETHINGINTO COMPUTER works better, or at least reveals that SORRY, THE GENERAL HAS NOT AUTHORIZED YOUR ACCESS TO THIS COMPUTER.  That's a pretty secure Apple ][!  They must have some sort of top-secret military network in place.

To the east of the computer room is a supply room containing EXPLOSIVES, which we can casually carry around.  The explosives have a timer, which will probably come in handy at some point.

A long tunnel leads north to the PRE-FLIGHT CHECKOUT ROOM, where a rather skeevy-looking doctor will check us out prior to takeoff. 

If we try to proceed to the west, we are informed that THE DOCTOR WILL NOT LET YOU PAST UNTIL YOU ARE IN BETTER SHAPE AND GET RID OF THAT AWFUL SMELL.  Getting a little personal there, aren't we, Doc Zombie?  Maybe you should lay off the booze.

There's a GYM to the east of the long tunnel.  We can't WORK OUT, but if we EXERCISE then we are told, OK. YOU NEEDED A GOOD WORKOUT.  The doctor doesn't seem convinced that we are in better shape yet, though.  Further east is a SHOWER ROOM, which should help with the smell... I hope... and yes, after we also TAKE SHOWER, we can get past the doctor to reach the AIRFIELD, with a rocket visible in the distance.

Going north takes us to the rocket, with a ladder going up -- no fancy launch tower elevators for us!  But we'd better go back inside and finish mapping and preparing, before we just head into space with no clear idea of why we want to go there.  And we should also visit the briefing room as instructed earlier; we haven't exactly done so "AT ONCE."

Going west from the starting area leads us to a briefing room and the aforementioned general, and we are advised that I THINK YOU HAD BETTER SALUTE.  The general appears to be about 12 years old as depicted here, but none of the human beings in these early Sierra games come off very well; my understanding is that Ken Williams did the artwork himself using an early graphics tablet, so we aren't seeing anything close to the art quality most people associate with Sierra's later graphic adventures. 

SALUTE yields the basic mission information we will need -- we have to fly to an incoming asteroid, blow it up, and return before it hits the Earth at "7:15 TONIGHT."  It is presumably a large enough asteroid that this will be a bad thing.  Having issued these orders, the general just leaves, presumably to go do something fun or otherwise prepare for the end of the world while we deal with the situation.  And -- yowch, our watch says it's already 04:45!  Too much exploration makes Jack a... MY GOD! WE'RE ALL GOING TO DIE! ... but not just yet, so let's see what else we can learn before the proverbial (and actual) game is over.

INTO COMPUTER now yields a flight plan -- we are instructed to go right for 10 minutes, up for 5 minutes, left for 15 minutes, down for 5 minutes, left for 5 minutes and up for 10 minutes.  It's a good thing our watch works in 5-minute increments, and that our rocket navigation works in a fuel-wasting two-dimensional right-angle fashion like an adventure game map, or we'd be even more doomed than we likely already are.

We make it back to the rocket at 5:55 -- it's going to be close, as we have to fly for 50 minutes just to reach the asteroid, according to the plan -- and CLIMB LADDER, PUSH BUTTON and GO DOOR to enter the ship.  We find ourselves in the VACUUM LOCK ROOM, and can push a blue button to purge the lock, change the doors and roll up the ladder.  We can now enter the rocket proper and take charge of the CONTROL ROOM.

We've apparently been given no training beyond a workout and a shower, so it's a good thing there's a SIGN on the console providing basic operating instructions.  We can PUSH VIOLET to close the door, though this isn't actually necessary.  LOOK CONSOLE reveals four buttons and a throttle; we can PUSH THROTTLE to lift off, PULL it to land, and use color-coded buttons to navigate left (white), right (black), up (orange) and down (blue).  Apparently these directions remain relative to a static frame of orientation back on Earth; at least we'd better hope they do, or we will be hopelessly lost as soon as we take off.

And on this first try, I didn't make it anywhere close to the goal... if we don't accomplish our mission in time, THE ASTEROID HAS JUST STRUCK THE EARTH DESTROYING ALL LIFE and the game is over.

On a second try, I make it to the rocket by... whoops, my SAVE GAME damaged this diskette because I did not put another one into the drive as prompted, so the game is now unplayable.  On the third try, with a fresh copy, I arrive at the rocket by 2:00 and should have time to make it to the asteroid.  Funny how no matter what time we take off, we use the same directions to reach the asteroid... must be that Einsteinian relativity stuff.  Or the complete absence of it.

I hadn't run into many deaths yet in my playthrough, but there are a number of fatal scenarios possible.  I learned that if we slip up and PUSH THROTTLE instead of PULLing it to take off, it breaks off, THEREBYE [sic] RUINING YOUR CHANCES TO GET BACK TO EARTH.  YOU ARE DEAD.  But I didn't even take off yet!  Can't I just step outside and get a replacement for this cheap piece of junk?  The game is over, in any case.

Fourth try... we are in the control room at 3:00 and ready to take off.  At 4:15 we have landed on the asteroid.  But THE ATMOSPHERE IS NOT SUITABLE FOR BREATHING. YOU ARE DEAD.  I thought I might be less than prepared.  So what have we missed?  A spacesuit, presumably.  HOLD BREATH certainly doesn't do the trick, so it's time to hunt around a bit. 

Back near the start, I discover that I didn't visit the PRESS ROOM west of the briefing room to TALK to the REPORTERS there... but that just gets us KICKED OUT OF THE AIR FORCE FOR DIVULGING TOP SECRET INFORMATION, ending the game Apparently the government thinks nobody else has noticed the earth-destroying asteroid primed for collision later today, and also has someone else they can send to accomplish this crucial mission.  This event also confirms that the mission is being run by the United States Air Force, and not, say, NASA, which may explain the apparently improvisational nature of the operation.

It doesn't seem I've missed any rooms now in the base, and the doctor is of no help.  Ah!  There is a storage room aboard the rocket, west of the control room -- an exit not mentioned in the room description -- that contains a spacesuit.  We WEAR SPACESUIT... but we still die when we open the airlock?  Ah - there is a dial on the suit, and if we TURN DIAL then THE AIR IS ON.  But it doesn't last very long, as it turns out.

Exploring the surface of the asteroid, we find a small cave with a tunnel leading to a VERY DEEP PIT.  This seems like a good place to put the explosives, and DROP EXPLOSIVES gives us a choice -- IN THE PIT OR ON THE FLOOR? -- and it seems best to go with IN THE PIT, although that doesn't quite work as advertised; we have to use two words: IN PIT.  Except... I forgot to SET TIMER before dumping it into the deep pit, way out of reach.  And besides, I am running out of air!

Trying again, we are informed that we have to decide how many minutes to put on the timer: 90, 120, 150 or 180.  It's already 6:30 in my attempt... so I'm already too late!  Too much dilly-dallying yet again.  Why did they make this timer so limited?  Another try gets me here at 5:35, just in time.  Of course, we can't just walk back to our rocket the way we came, because the map here is slightly inconsistent.  And I ran out of air again, and died just as I was about to reenter the rocket ship.

Being slightly more efficient gets us in the door in time -- fortunately we don't have to take off the spacesuit, as we can breathe normally even if we have it on and it runs out of air; this is a good thing, because we are only allowed to drop it in the storage room.  But I restored from a save where I had set the timer too late, and the asteroid slammed into the earth well before it was due to blow up.

While most of the puzzles are very simple, timing is the primary challenge presented by Mission Asteroid, and frankly the USAF seems guilty of abysmal planning.  They've built a rocket capable of carrying enough fuel to travel to the asteroid and back, but designed a space suit with barely enough air to support exploration of said asteroid, an unmapped hunk of rock that just conveniently has a cave with a pit near our landing site.  The powers-that-be seem to have very short notice about the impending near-Earth object collision, yet they've sent the player on this mission, a slothlike character who requires five minutes to look at his/her watch or pick up an object. 

This realization leads us to reconsider the convoluted flight plan, generated on the USAF's Apple ][ instead of one of those fancy NASA computers.  If we map the flight plan out on graph paper -- again, the rocket uses a 2-D navigation system, so it's not hard to deal with -- we spot some possible shortcuts.  It looks like we can just go left for two moves and up for two moves, or up, left twice, and up again, traveling for 20 minutes instead of 50.  Does this work?  The former does, though the latter just brings us back to Earth -- this is apparently a bit of a maze.  So we actually need to map out the space area, based on the unique visual displays in each location.  This allows us to arrive on the asteroid in fewer moves, so we now have more time to finish our mission successfully.

Setting 90 minutes on the timer proves to be insufficient -- I am not far enough away from the asteroid when it blows up, so HUGH CHUNKS OF THE EXPLODED ASTEROID HIT YOUR ROCKET AND DESTROY IT.  Poor Hugh!  Sorry, dude, we didn't know anybody was living on the asteroid.  And in this situation we get no credit for our noble self-sacrifice while saving the Earth; we are just dead and the adventure is over.

On the next try, I go for 120 minutes -- which is still cutting it close.  We can't return to Earth exactly the way we came -- it takes longer to return than it did to go there, for some reason, but we can make it in five moves.  And we don't have to disembark -- as long as we land safely on our home planet, and the timer goes off before the asteroid impacts, we are victorious!

Oddly, after this display and the "GOOD BYE..." message, control is given back to the player at a prompt.  And if we choose to wander around some more instead of just turning off our own Apple ][, then at 7:05 PM, we learn to our dismay that THE ASTEROID HAS JUST STRUCK THE EARTH DESTROYING ALL LIFE!

I'm pretty sure this is just a programming oversight, but it gives the impression that blowing the asteroid into lots of smaller pieces didn't really save the Earth, after all.  It suggests that the bulk of the asteroid's lethal mass continued hurtling towards us, and our "successful" mission just gave the doofuses at the USAF a final self-congratulatory 30 minutes of existence before dying along with the populace they worked so hard to keep in the dark.  Our failed mission also seems to have accelerated the fatal impact, as the General's briefing told us it was expected at 7:15 and it came in at 7:05.  (Though given the fictional USAF's track record on planning as evidenced by this episode, that might just have been due to poor calculations.)

I thought Mission Asteroid was a fun little adventure, and a bit more challenging than I had expected due to the time factor.  It's a brief and simple story, but sometimes that's exactly what I'm in the mood for, especially when I'm on deadline.  I will eventually have to tackle the rest of the pre-King's Quest Sierra adventures, but next week I'll be reporting on something else.  I think.

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